Of Sparrows, Blue Jays, and Tornadoes

bluejay240 Last week, we had a couple young blue jays fall out of trees in the front yard and eventually succumb to the family cats. My son and I had each tried to save them by picking them up off the ground where we found them and carefully placing them on limbs of the chestnut trees where their parents were raucously screaming in their frantic blue jay way. Unfortunately, our efforts were in vain.

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. – Matthew 10:29-31

Also last week, 7 elementary school children were killed when a tornado struck their school building in Moore, Oklahoma. In times of tragedy like this, people want answers – answers about God, answers about the meaning of life and death, answers explaining how life can even be worth living in the face of devastating loss. Another way of saying this is that people are looking for an understanding of God that makes sense, given the presence of such tragedy, grief and suffering in their own lives. I am convinced that as followers of Christ, we must be prepared to explain who God is and what we know Him to be like to a hurting world looking for answers.

I brought this up in our adult Sunday School class last week by asking this simple question: “So how do you explain tornadoes that kill little children?”. The answers I got really surprised me, to say the least. In general, the answers fell into these three categories:

  • Original Sin
  • God is Sovereign
  • The Ways of God are Unknowable

(The titles of these categories are mine – these actual words were not used in our class discussion, but I think they succinctly summarize the viewpoints expressed.)

Original Sin
Here is a paraphrase of one of the answers:

Because Adam sinned, all the human beings who came after are sinful. Those children killed by the tornado were sinful, and so their death was an appropriate punishment.

I admit that I was completely taken aback by this response, and all I could ask was “You mean that is what you would say to their parents?” – and the answer was a confident “Yes”.

(Please keep in mind that our church is part of a denomination with Anabaptist roots, and Calvinist doctrines are not explicitly taught there.)

My understanding of our sinfulness as a result of the Fall is that we are born separated from God and that this separation inevitably and unavoidably results in each of us choosing to sin. This is quite different from the doctrine of “Original Sin” which conveys the idea that we literally inherit sin from Adam, and that our genetic makeup itself is inherently sinful. This doctrine is unscriptural and is the basis for much misunderstanding and harm. It portrays God as condemning us for sin which is not our own and ignores the fact that He has created us as moral beings with a free will.

The use of the doctrine of original sin to explain the tragic deaths of schoolchildren is appalling on many levels. Why those seven? Why not your children, or mine? For that matter, why not you or me? Since we know from scripture that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, how could we then say that these children had been singled out as an example when we are all deserving of death? As Christ-followers, is this really what we have to say to the parents of those children – that God punished them for their sins by killing them with a tornado?

As a result of the Fall, creation itself is “subjected to futility” and is not at all as God created it to be. Death, decay and disease are results of the Fall, as are natural disasters such as earthquakes and tornadoes. We live in a broken world and are subject to the results of that brokenness. The children that died in that school building were victims of that brokenness, not victims of God’s wrath poured out upon them as punishment for their sins. God’s wrath against us for our sin has already been poured out on His child Jesus, not on your child or mine.

God is Sovereign

I believe God is in control of every single thing that happens in this life.

Another type of response voiced in our class discussion is described in the paraphrased quote above. In the face of tragedy, this argument goes something like this: “If something bad actually happens, then it had to have been God’s will for it to happen, since God is in control over everything that happens.” This seems humble and pious, as it sounds like we are paying homage to God’s omniscience and omnipotence. But what we are actually doing is humanizing God – as someone has said, “God created man in His own image, and then man returned the favor”. Let’s not make God small by describing His sovereignty as if He were a human king or despot. Every tyrant throughout history has ruthlessly attempted to destroy any challenge to his authority. But “sovereignty” is not the same thing as “control”. Sovereignty can perhaps be best thought of as “the moral authority to rule”. God displays the epitome of sovereignty by willfully laying it down, thereby bringing glory to Himself through all those who believe. The highest expression of sovereignty was Jesus going to the cross to absorb God’s wrath for our sin, so that we could enter into a right relationship with the Father. To say that God chooses to not control every single thing that happens is in no way an attack on His sovereignty – on the contrary, it glorifies His nature by showing that He willfully allows us to exist as free moral agents, created in His image. His sovereignty rests on His own nature, not on the necessity of controlling His creation as puppets whose every thought and action are manipulated by a puppetmaster.

Until Christ returns and makes all things new, we are subjected to the consequences of sin and brokenness in each other and in the natural order of the world around us. God in His divine sovereignty allows us to make free-will choices for good or for evil, and allows the natural order and disorder of the world to unfold. While He certainly has the power to directly intervene in events, in individual lives, or to create natural disasters for His purposes, it is evident that in the normal course of life He chooses not to.

This brings us back to the quote from Matthew 10 comparing the worth of a sparrow’s life to that of Christ’s disciples:

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. – Matthew 10:29-31

Many people take these verses to mean that God is “in control” of everything that happens – even things as inconsequential as a baby sparrow (or blue jay) falling from its nest. They then conclude that since God was “in control” of that event, that He willed it to happen. However, a fair reading of Jesus’ entire teaching from Matthew 10 will present a different understanding of His illustration. An in-depth review of what Jesus is teaching in Matthew 10 is outside the scope of what I want to say here, but please note that Jesus instructs the disciples three times in verses 26-31 to “fear not”. The reasons He gives for them (and us) not to fear is that the Father knows us intimately, is ever present with us, and values us greatly. Jesus is not teaching that the Father wills us to be persecuted or killed by unbelievers any more than He is teaching that the Father wills the sparrows or blue jays to fall from the nest and be eaten by cats. The point of His teaching is to bring comfort and encouragement for the trials of life that await, rather than a fatalistic submission to the unknown and unknowable whims of a tyrannical deity.

The Ways of God are Unknowable

With our finite minds we cannot fathom God’s purposes, or why He does things the way He does.

This outlook was also expressed in our class discussion, and I confess I have been of this mindset in many difficult times of my life. One of my favorite passages in times of disillusionment and confusion is Romans 11:33:

O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!

But I’d like to emphasize two points when considering how to explain tragedy and suffering in this life:

  1. While it is true that we cannot grasp the fullness of why God does what He does, He has not left us without any understanding of His character. He has shown us His character in His creation; His word in scripture show us His character; the life, ministry, teaching, death and resurrection of His Logos teaches us His character; His Holy Spirit within us leads us into understanding of His character. We are not without sufficient knowledge of His character to explain it to grieving unbelievers.
  2. When asked by an unbelieving world to describe who our God is and what He is like, it is very unhelpful and uncompassionate to just shrug our shoulders and say in effect “We can’t understand God or describe Him to you”.  A world seeking answers deserves to know about our Father, His compassion for every sheep outside the fold, and His fervent desire for each of them to come into relationship with Him through the work of His son Jesus.

We must not misrepresent God to a grieving world seeking answers. It is imperative that we give an answer for the hope that lies within us – one that glorifies God our Father, and His son whom He has sent to die for a broken world.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Of Sparrows, Blue Jays, and Tornadoes

  1. Great post. Ironically, I feel that many humans find the implications of freedom too enslaving. Why believe in free-will choices when it is so much easier and comfortable to be a fatalist? People find great solace in the idea of God as a puppet master, because it relieves us of the bothersome need to exercise faith in the midst of adversity. We love our absolutes. God as a “holy tyrant” is definable, and so therefore preferable to a wild God who loves freedom because he loves us. The horrendous implications of a God who minutely controls everything is lost on those who find security in the known, no matter how horrific the explanation. I think of the German citizens who were aware of Hitler’s concentration camps, and yet chose to praise him as their great leader because he offered them uniformity and control. As you said: Is God like that? Does He find pleasure in death and tyranny? Did God really see fit to curse us with a sinful nature and then demand we be punished because of it? Is that who God is? Attributing tyranny to God is but another way of expressing a fleshly desire to control him. There is no humility in that way of thinking…It is sick.

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